OUR CARIBBEAN SPIRIT: Chutney as Cultural Identity

The Spirit of Chutney: Cultural Identity Through Movement with Denyse Baboolal


Denyse in a Classical Indian Performance

Trinidadian cultural activist Denyse Baboolal honors her East and West Indian heritage in the community work that she is passionate about—cultural preservation. Denyse Baboolal is a native of Trinidad and transplant to New York, currently living in Florida. Her dance background is inclusive of Kathak, Chutney, and Indian Folk Dance. She studied at the Nirtyanjali Dance Theatre and learned Rajdhar (a fusion dance style developed in Guyana that incorporates Kathak, nagara, and bhojpuri style to Tan Sangeet music) with the late Gora Singh at the Rajkumari Cultural Center in New York where she worked for twenty years. The Rajkumari Cultural Center is “a community-based, multi-arts organization that works to rejuvenate Indo-Caribbean cultural and artistic life to this new American community” (http://rajkumari.weebly.com/our-mission.html). Her experience at the Rajkumari Cultural Center emboldened her to continue her interest in Indo-Caribbean preservation.

In 2008 she founded Jayadevi Arts Inc. (JAI), a non- profit organization. Its mission is to “preserve, present, educate, and unite the arts and culture of Trinidad, Guyana, Jamaica, Suriname and other parts of the Caribbean.” The name Jayadevi is derived from “Jaya Devi” which translates as “victorious goddess” in Hindu culture. Through the naming of her organization, she pays tribute to her East and West Indian culture, honoring its vitality. East Indian contribution within Caribbean culture is immense.


JayaDevi International Dancers in their Ganges meet the Nile production.

Better known as Indo Caribbean’s, this group has a very detailed history inclusive of indentured servitude and controversy but one that is a rich expression of traditional elements such as religion, language, and celebrations. It is a creolized and syncretic culture, incorporating many of the indigenous features of the Caribbean “strengthening the Indo-[Caribbean] stake to genuine citizenhood…” (Manuel 2000, 335).

Where Yuh From?

Indo-Caribbean’s are Caribbean natives who have East Indian ancestry. Indians were brought to the Caribbean for indentured servitude in the 1900’s. After slavery was abolished in 1833, the British plantation owners recognized this as an economic travesty. Sugarcane plantations like cotton fields required a mass amount of cheap labor therefore, they created a new system of forced labor, redefining it as indentured labor. Indentured servants worked for little pay and endured hard physical labor and rigid conditions.  This migration brought some 383,000 East Indian workers to Trinidad, the British Guiana, and other areas of the West Indies.

Where Yuh Going?

Indian folk dances were birthed by the ancestors from the villages of Gujjar, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh in India. This direct lineage to India provides a sense of authenticity in terms of the cultural influences in the Caribbean due to Indian migration and indentured servitude. Indian folk dances travelled to the Caribbean on those ships. The pure traditional folk dances were then mixed with Caribbean culture, a natural synthesis ensued and the movements organically fused together creating its own culture. A prime example of this is with chutney.


JayaDevi Dancers in flag-inspired Chutney-Soca costumes.

Chutney emerged in the 1980’s as a “loose category of lively, up-tempo Hindi-language folk songs and an accompanying dance” (Manuel 2000, 336). It was also ceremonial and a staple at Hindu weddings. Since then, it produced several iterations inclusive of Indian folk styles and African influences.  Baboolal states that “now [we’ve] merged with Latin [and] everything that came to invade Trinidad and Tobago. Trinidad and Tobago now has this very unique expression of chutney called chutney soca.”

“[This] is the reason why it is important to preserve [our folk dances and culture] because, with the evolution of the different generations, [there is now an infiltration] by other nontraditional elements. Now, I [will] do [my best] to keep it in this traditional form.”

Ms, Baboolal believes that in order to locate authentic chutney style, one must travel to Trinidad. You can certainly find it in Guyana and Jamaica, but there is a distinct difference in their articulation of it. You can trace its roots to Bejar, India and it’s called chati “but, it’s not the same. That is the real traditional [movement] and chutney is just the trim of that flavor.”

The Politics of Indo-Caribbean Identity


Denyse with Rayen Kalpoe and Mala Samaroo of Baithak Gana Warriors.

It is important to note that to understand Caribbean identity on one must use the lens of colonization which created creolization and fusions of culture, language, food, religion, dance, and people. In order to decolonize one self, it is imperative that Caribbean folk “understand [themselves on their] own terms, to look through eyes unblinkered by imported theories, defin[ing] [themselves] in a language of its own invention” (Laughlin 2006). This definition must remain constant wherever they take up residence in the Americas. Baboolal speaks of the struggle to be identified and accepted in reference to being funded in South Florida where she is constantly explaining that she is an Indian from the Caribbean not from East India doing Bollywood or classical Indian dance. There seems to be no awareness of the very diverse populations from the Caribbean therefore, the “diversity checklist…for the census” needs to include the many different racial and ethnic groups such as Indo-Caribbean, Hispanic, Pacific Islanders, and Asian because “we are not these other groups of people.”

Historically, people of African descent “struggled to establish cultural identity” (Manuel 2000, 318) under the dictatorship of the colonizer. East Indians also struggled to establish their own identity “within traditionally black-dominated political and socio-cultural frameworks” (Manuel 2000, 318). Through cultural recalibration, a method that is grounded in cultural retention consisting of “reformulating their own senses of culture and identity in relation to mainstream West Indian contexts” (Manuel 200, 318) and advocating for an inclusive cultural schema that recognizes both their East Indian and West Indian Heritage, Indo-Caribbean’s can maintain their identity in transnational spaces.

Our Caribbean Spirit?

Photo from Can Dance (2)
Candace Thompson and Denyse Baboolal during the interview.

When asked her thoughts on Dance Caribbean COLLECTIVE’s (DCC’s) current theme, “Our Caribbean Spirit,” she stated that “it is just about being identified. It’s a struggle for us [Indo-Caribbean’s] to be identified, accepted, and for our style to be on a mainstream level rather than [being seen as] that minority in the minority.” The work that Baboolal and JayaDevi is doing serves as an act of resistance against the historical and current systems that seek to eradicate Indo-Caribbean identity. Her mission is to preserve and promote Indo-Caribbean culture specifically here in North America where she feels that it is being threatened. She gives a heart-felt testimony:

‘[We are] losing our people. Our people are pulling to the American way. So, instead of wanting to be Caribbean, be a soca child, be an Indo-Caribbean person, they want to be an American, [or] follow the Latin way, [or] the hip-hop way. They want to be everything [other] than that what is in their DNA or what came from their ancestral heritage… I mean, if you look at the American born, the Americans who live here, the third fourth generation Americans, they’re searching for a culture. They’re searching for an identity, and they’re grabbing everyone else’s culture. But [we, Indo-Caribbean’s do] have a culture. [I ask the youth], where are you going with it? That’s the message we need to [articulate] to our youths. We need to remind them [of]who [they] are, where [they] came from and why [they] must be proud to preserve [their] culture.’

Yuh Dun Kno…

Denyse Baboolal and Jayadevi Arts Inc. is focused on establishing a sense of Indo-Caribbean identity in North American societies; ensuring that Indo-Caribbean youth recognize their rich culture; preserving traditional Indian folk dances; and bringing the hybrid form of music and dance called chutney soca to the mainstream. Her commitment to JAI’s mission of preserving, presenting, and educating is evident as she uses her love for Indo-Caribbean culture as a platform to educate and unite communities about the lineage, transgression, and evolution of Indo-Caribbean people.

Photo from Can Dance (3)

Candace Thompson of DCC with Denyse Baboolal post-interview.


Manuel, Peter. “Ethnic Identity, National Identity and Music in Indo-Caribbean Culture,” in
Music and the Racial Imagination, ed. Philip Bohlman and Ronald Rodano (University of Chicago Press, 2000), pp. 318-45.
The Rajkumari Cultural Center. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Mar. 2017.

The signature piece for this year’s New Traditions (dance) Festival is ‘Our Caribbean Spirit’ which will engage with the various Caribbean Dance forms present throughout Brooklyn and NYC by connecting with cultural groups and organizations. The hope is to highlight the multiple ways Caribbean-ness is expressed throughout the Caribbean Diaspora, through a published interview series, video documentation and a collaborative dance process, and to continue the conversation through live performance at the New Traditions Festival 2017, June 16-18.
Get tickets for New Traditions Festival HERE.

Written by A’Keitha Carey
Edited by Candace Thompson
Special Thanks to Medgar Evers College Prep
Photos used with permission from JayaDevi’s Facebook page



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